The Wrong Rescuer
Susan Ashdown was beginning to feel like the heroine in the penultimate chapter of one of the Gothic novels she and her friends were so fond of. Only, it seemed as if the writer wasn't quite aware of how the story was supposed to go.
For example, there was the villain of the piece, who was currently dragging Susan from his carriage toward what had to be the shabbiest inn in all of Zema. Not only was Huey Minton a ridiculous name for an evildoer, but he was corpulent and balding with sweaty palms. Villains were supposed to be darkly handsome, compelling despite their evil, with only the barest traces of their dissipation beginning to show, not something from the mossy side of an Abe Frog's family tree.
While his appearance was all wrong, Huey did have the mannerisms of the role down. His fleshy hand was locked in an iron grip around Susan's wrist, and she knew that there was hard, strong muscle beneath the extra weight he carried. He dragged her along with no apparent effort; when she did not walk fast enough to suit him it felt as if her arm was being wrenched from its socket.
The inn, too, did not meet with Susan's expectations of a low dive. While the furniture was suitably fragile and splintery, the floor and tables alike liberally dotted with stains that occasionally defied description, and the stench was fit to make her cast up her accounts at the slightest provocation, the tavern lacked a key element: the allotment of drunken curs and cheap prostitutes that should have been sitting at the tables and thronging the bar. They were supposed to meet a boatman here, and the only people present were two bearded louts who did not appear sufficiently nautical to recognize the ocean without being thrown in (which would have done their hygiene a world of good) and a greasy individual whose nose looked to have had repeated encounters with a series of blunt instruments.
"Mr. Minton," the latter called, "I have your room ready." He gestured towards a half-open door leading to a private parlor.
"Excellent, Rowe." Huey turned to the two servants who had accompanied him from Piata, a wiry little driver and a burly, unwashed thug whose breath reeked of onions. "Wells, secure the carriage so it doesn't attract attention. Farn, you go and find Captain Marsh and bring him here to me. Now!" The two scuttled out the door.
"So, my dear," Huey leered, finally seeming to remember the girl he had forcibly dragged from the Town of Learning, "soon we shall set sail. Such a delightful wedding trip we shall have."
"Wedding!" Susan gasped. "I'll never marry you, you pig! I turned you down just last week, or had you forgotten?"
Huey actually chuckled at that.
"Forgotten? Of course I haven't, though I daresay before I'm through you'll wish you had been sensible enough to have taken my offer." He patted her hand, his smile growing even broader. "It wouldn't have been half as fun for me, though, so I suppose I shouldn't complain."
He turned to the innkeeper and roared, "Brandy!"
"It's already in the room, Mr. Minton. Two bottles of our finest Torinco."
"Hah! Your finest! Doubt if the stuff is fit to give these louts, let alone a gentleman."
"Gentleman! You're nothing but a jumped-up thug with a little money!" Susan told him angrily.
Minton slapped her viciously across the face for that, then shoved her hard so that she stumbled through the door to the private parlor and fell down. Huey followed her, shutting the door behind them with one hand while jerking Susan to her feet with the other.
"That's no way for a lady," he sneeringly emphasized the word, "to talk to her future husband."
"I will never marry you!" Susan protested again, earning another slap that made her jaw ache.
"Oh, you will marry me, Miss Ashdown. By the time we return from Termi you will be the most loving and devoted of wives. I confess that I shall savor the convincing of you."
Susan shrank back as best she could and stammered, "B-but why me? Why could you possibly want me as a wife?"
Huey tossed back his head and laughed, a booming, grunting noise.
"Why, for the obvious reasons, my dear—money and position! As both a scion of a powerful Aiedo merchant house and as a senior professor at Motavia Academy, your father's name will open doorways that not all my wealth could get me past."
Susan looked at him aghast, certain that her kidnapper had gone insane.
"Surely you can't believe that my father would exercise his influence on your behalf after you've kidnapped me?"
Huey laughed again, the sound rapidly beginning to send chills through Susan.
"Ah, but I've done nothing of the sort! Why, you were so in love with me that nothing would do but that we elope at once. Your father dotes on you and will surely forgive you your lovestruck indiscretion."
"But...but how do you expect anyone to believe a mad story like that?"
He poured himself a generous glass of brandy.
"Why, because you'll go along with every detail of it, of course. Have no doubt, after our 'honeymoon' is over you will beg to be my true love. You'll have no thought but to please my every whim."
"Of course I can; indeed, I already have. Or did you think that little wench Charlotte Wray simply swooned into my arms when I wed her? If her father hadn't been such a fool as to lose his entire fortune at rikesh I shouldn't have had to remove her and seek a new wife."
He tossed back a good two fingers of the spirit while Susan shuddered.
"You...you murdered her?" she asked, horrified. Huey only smiled, making Susan wonder just what methods he was going to use to make her consent to the marriage. The thought came to her that while no author would have created their villain with the obese merchant's name and physique, his plans for her were quite in line with the best of evil noblemen and wicked uncles.
Susan licked her lips nervously, belatedly noticing Minton's leer grow broader at the gesture. His eyes traveled up and down the feminine curves revealed by her knee-length dress. She shivered again as his eyes probed her.
"Now, now," he said laughingly, "we haven't the time to do more than enjoy the view. There's a trip to arrange—eh?"
If Huey had been going to say anything, it was forever lost when the sounds of activity outside filtered into the back room. Angry shouts, grunts of pain, the crash of bodies slamming into walls and tables—it sounded like there was a minor land war going on out there. Minton glanced around the tiny room with hunted eyes, realizing that he had no way of escape other than by the single door.
Nor, Susan realized with elation, did her kidnapper have a weapon! Not once had he shown her a knife or club, instead relying on his great advantage in physical strength to control her. It made sense; she couldn't snatch that weapon and use it against him if he happened to let down his guard. It was a cautious decision, but if this was a rescue, it left him with very few options.
Growling, he seized Susan's wrist, dragged her in front of him, and locked one meaty arm around her throat in a chokehold just as the door slammed open.
Susan sighed mentally upon seeing the new arrival. This adventure had all the proper elements—the wicked villain, the underworld den, the heroic rescue—but it just couldn't get anything right. Oh, her rescuer looked properly dashing, snug black bodysuit showing off sleekly developed musculature, white leather boots and gloves pristine, light glinting off polished steel held expertly in those gloved hands, but the figure under that bodysuit and the red dress over it was definitely female (and to add insult to injury, it was a better figure than Susan's). Her long brown hair fell past her shoulders and crystalline blue eyes fixed Huey with an icy stare. The blades she held were slashers, boomerang-like throwing weapons.
"Get back, witch, or I'll break her neck," snarled the kidnapper.
"Not holding her like that you won't. Strangle her, maybe, but not break her neck."
"Drop the slashers!" Huey bellowed, his face growing red.
"It's too cramped in here to use them anyway," the woman noted, and let the blades fall.
Minton roared with mingled rage and triumph, hurled Susan out of the way, and snatched up one of the brandy bottles from the table to use as a makeshift club. Susan hit the wall hard, yelped as pain stabbed through her shoulder, and cringed away from the fight.
Huey lunged, swinging the full bottle in a roundhouse arc that had all of his strength behind it. The woman ducked under the swing, rolled, and swept an extended leg at the back of Minton's knee. Already off-balance from his attack, the kidnapper went down in a heap. Springing to her feet, Susan's rescuer snatched the other bottle from the table and smashed it down on Huey's head, showering him with liquor and broken glass. His face an unusual shade of purple, he gurgled once, then lay still.
The woman frowned, bent over the fallen man, and pressed two fingers to the side of his neck.
"Is...is he dead?" Susan asked.
"I'd say so," the woman replied, getting to her feet. "Heart, I'd guess, or apoplexy, unless someone poisoned the brandy. Liquor, rage, exertion, and too much weight are a bad combination. I presume you aren't going to complain too much?"
Susan laughed, a reaction due as much to hysteria as to humor.
"He was kidnapping me!"
"When the goons outside jumped me, I figured something was up. Oh, well, maybe one or two has a bounty on them I can collect. By the way, I'm Alys."
"Nice to meet you. Come on, let's get out of here. It's not pretty out front, but it's better than staying back here with someone you know."
Alys was right; the front room was bad, too, but somehow the sight of four men Susan didn't know sprawled amidst broken tables and chairs was less disturbing than being closed in with Minton's corpse. Looking around with morbid curiosity, Susan noted the two louts, the innkeeper, and the driver. Surprisingly, the innkeeper was the only one who looked to be dead, apparently cut down while trying to fire a bow gun.
"The business of rescuing seems much more...vigorous...than it does in novels," she observed, still a bit nauseous. At least, she noted, she didn't think she was going to swoon or fall into strong hysterics. "On balance, though, I find it quite preferable to not being rescued. Minton told me that he murdered his first wife, did you know?"
"Minton? Was that Huey Minton?"
"I'm surprised he was still around," Alys said. "I know at least three hunters who would have killed him on sight if they'd gotten the chance. Well, I'm glad I could be of service."
"I'm glad, too! Although it is monstrously unfair that you're a woman. Here I am, a real-life damsel in distress, and I can't even be swept off my feet by a rescuing hero."
Alys broke out laughing. The moment was shattered, though, when the door slammed open, Minton's thuggish servant was thrust into the room, and three men followed with drawn swords.
"Minton! Unhand Susan at once!" the lead man roared, and Susan was happily surprised to see it was her father, with Matthew Lavelle (mmm!) and her brother Thom accompanying him. His righteous-avenger expression changed to bewilderment, then relief as he saw Susan standing unharmed in the middle of the wreckage.
"You're about two minutes late," Alys observed.
"What happened here?" Professor Ashdown exclaimed, puzzled but happy that his daughter was safe. "Where's Minton? Who are you?"
"Huey has made the world a better place by permanently leaving it; he's in the back room there," Alys said. "My name's Alys."
The name didn't mean much more to the professor than it had to Susan, but both of the younger men went wide-eyed.
"Not...the hunter Alys Brangwin?" asked Thom. "The Eight-"
"Yes, that Alys," she said, a pained expression on her face.
"Rescued by Alys Brangwin," Thom said. "Susan, you have all the luck."
Oh, great, Susan thought. Not only am I rescued, but my rescuer is famous—but she's a woman! Thom was wrong; she had no luck at all.
"Well, Alys, we're all certainly grateful to you," the Professor said. "I am curious, though. We've followed Minton's trail from Piata and happened to spot his servant. How did you happen to get on his track? Did one of his other victims commission the Hunters' Guild?"
Alys shook her head.
"No, it was completely by accident; I came through the door and Huey's men attacked me. Actually, I was just looking for my apprentice, who wandered off and got separated from me. You haven't seen a short, blond kid about fourteen anywhere, have you?"